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Retail study gets great response in Middlebury

MIDDLEBURY — A new survey that will help Middlebury plan its retail future has already drawn more than 800 responses, leaving organizers optimistic they will get a clear picture of what locals and visitors want to see in terms of future shopping opportunities. Those who would like to give their input still may do so at the Expereience Middlebury website.
It was last year that the Better Middlebury Partnership (BMP) launched its “Future of Retail Project.” The project has several goals, including:
•  Engaging the public to determine what retail needs are being met in Middlebury and in what areas the town has room to expand its market.
•  Performing a thorough market analysis of retail in Middlebury, incorporating demographic information to ensure the context of the town is accurately captured.
•  Presenting what opportunities exist for new retail in conjunction with retaining current retailers.
•  Shaping strategies for the future of retail in Middlebury while preserving its character and contributing to its sense of place.
•  Exploring strategies for recruiting retail stores that would diversify the market and provide livable wages without compromising the town’s character.
The BMP formed a steering committee to help organize the effort. The committee recently hired, thanks to a grant, a consultant — Tripp Muldrow of North Carolina-based Arnett Muldrow & Associates — to coordinate related surveys and assist in interpreting the results. As of Thursday, more than 800 people had completed an on-line survey asking them about their shopping habits and their impressions of what the Middlebury retail scene currently has to offer. The survey features statements that respondents are asked to react to on a scale of one to 10, with 10 meaning “strongly agree,” and one indicating strong disagreement.
Statements on the survey include, “downtown Middlebury provides local residents good shopping,” “additional retail development will keep more customers in Middlebury,” and “it is important to have an economically vibrant downtown.”
Muldrow said the survey will remain available at http://svy.mk/1gQ867B until early May, at which time the results will be tabulated and presented at some upcoming community workshops. The next one is scheduled for Tuesday, April 29, at 5:30 p.m. at the Ilsley Public Library. Another will be held in late May. Plans call for Muldrow to present a final report in late June or July. That report will include marketing suggestions and other recommendations along with statistical data.
Muldrow has administered many economic development surveys during his career and is ecstatic with the response thus far to the Middlebury survey.
“It is absolutely staggering how many people have opted to take this survey,” Muldrow said. “The more respondents you have, the more valid your data will be.”
A second, upcoming survey will provide additional insights into who is shopping in Middlebury.
At least 15 Middlebury merchants will spend a week early next month asking zip code information from their customers. The results will show where shoppers are coming from, which will in turn give merchants a better perspective on how to market their respective businesses.
“The zip codes will provide a quantitative analysis of what is going on,” Muldrow said, adding that the resulting geographic analysis will provide a clearer picture than the alternative “drive-time” analysis for what is a fairly rural community and region.
Muldrow said the results might affirm what merchants have thought about their customers’ origins, or it might totally surprise them.
Ben Wilson, president of the BMP, is pleased with the progress of the study.
“It’s going wonderfully,” Wilson said, adding he’s “getting e-mails from people who completed the (on-line) survey, but have more to say.”
Wilson is also pleased that Muldrow has conducted focus groups with various stakeholders in the Middlebury community. Those groups have included storeowners, restaurateurs, Realtors, lodgers, Middlebury College students, town officials and representatives of the town’s industrial park.
It’s a process that should also sort out whether shoppers would support a major chain store adding to the Middlebury retail mix, or if people would instead like to launch a community-supported department store. Middlebury has debated the “big box store” issue since the closing of Ames department store more than a dozen years ago. The town’s zoning ordinances feature language opposing new retail stores in excess of 50,000 square feet. At the same time, town officials acknowledge that many local shoppers are doing business at big box stores in Rutland, Burlington and Ticonderoga, N.Y., and at the same time buying items they could be purchasing in Middlebury.
Wilson believes the final report will answer a lot of questions and serve the community well in filling retail gaps, solving parking problems and informing future municipal planning and zoning efforts.
“I expect the report will shed additional light and be usable in a lot of different contexts,” Wilson said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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